Middle management

Shuffling sixth-graders to junior highs is the next big controversy in the CUSD

READY FOR A MOVE? Teacher Robert Preston, shown helping sixth-grader Jordan Barnes, 11, fill out his daily planner, believes sixth grade is too soon to send children to school with seventh- and eighth-graders. A school board study session on the issue held Aug. 23 drew about 100 parents to Little Chico Creek Elementary, where Preston teaches.

READY FOR A MOVE? Teacher Robert Preston, shown helping sixth-grader Jordan Barnes, 11, fill out his daily planner, believes sixth grade is too soon to send children to school with seventh- and eighth-graders. A school board study session on the issue held Aug. 23 drew about 100 parents to Little Chico Creek Elementary, where Preston teaches.

Photo By Tom Angel

Mulling the middle:
The National Middle School Association, stating that “effective programs and practices, not grade configuration, determine quality schools,” defines an exemplary middle school as one that assigns a core of teachers to the same group of students, provides advisory programs and extra support for students, offers electives or “exploratory” programs in a variety of fields and includes transition programs for students moving both into and out of the campus.

Robert Preston’s sixth-grade classroom at Little Chico Creek Elementary School, with its SpongeBob SquarePants figures and tempting jar of candy, could easily be mistaken for a fifth- or even fourth-grade room if it weren’t for the long division he’s scrawling on the dry-erase board.

There’s a smattering of low-rider jeans and short shorts, but for the most part the 11- and 12-year-olds look and act like their younger counterparts—right down to the accusations by one boy that his seatmate is “hitting me.”

It’s when Preston’s former students stop in to say hi after getting out of nearby Marsh Junior High that a one-year age difference really stands out.

“I have four teachers,” announces one seventh-grade girl, who bolts into Room 23 wearing a trendy, tight-fitting outfit and sporting a touch of makeup.

“Our society forces children to grow up so quickly,” observes Mary Edwards, Preston’s teaching partner.

Edwards and Preston are among many teachers and parents who are worried about the next big move the Chico Unified School District is considering: shifting sixth-graders to junior high campuses and making them “middle schools.”

They fear that, even if the district’s intentions are to create campuses where adolescents are catered to academically and socially, these “tweens,” stuck between child and teenager, could still be overwhelmed by their more-sophisticated counterparts.

“Why are we trying to push them to grow up even faster?” Edwards asks. “They need one more year of surrounding, of protecting.”

The impact of such a decision would be controversial and far-reaching, said George Young, president of the Chico Unified Teachers Association (CUTA). “It’s going to be huge,” he said. “Credentialing would be a huge problem. [And] most of the sixth-grade teachers want to stay at the elementary schools.” Already, he said, some sixth grade teachers are asking to be transferred to a lower grade so they won’t be caught up in a potential move.

Young said people tend to support the model that was dominant when and where they grew up, and in the case of today’s parents, that’s the grade 7-8 junior high that ruled though the 1970s and ‘80s. “I go back and forth” on the issue, he said. “Statewide it’s the trend; it’s where everyone is going.”

“The big thing here, to me, is that it’s not about moving sixth-graders,” said CUSD Trustee Rick Rees. “[It’s about whether] we want to change our junior highs and do what it seems like the vast majority has done—create this middle-school concept.”

District staff, in preparation for a board briefing that took place Aug. 23, has dusted off a 1989 CUSD report that recommended creating grades 6-8 schools. In the late 1980s, a movement toward middle-school reform had begun to take shape. Still a mainstay of junior high school administrators’ bookshelves is a volume called Caught in the Middle, put out by the California Department of Education. That 1987 publication sparked a nationwide trend toward the middle-school grade configuration and teaching model that combines teacher collaboration, block scheduling and other “team"-type elements—all in recognition of adolescents’ tenuous social, emotional and intellectual development as they transition from elementary to high school.

“That’s a real critical age and developmental place,” said Rees, who has a son in high school and a daughter in college. “You really ease the students along with a very caring environment.”

In 1971, only 16 percent of middle schools or junior highs nationwide had a 6-8 grade configuration, while 24 percent were 7-8 and a full 45 percent were 7-9, according to the National Middle School Association. By 2000, the 6-8 configuration had increased 404 percent, to 59 percent of the total. Seventeen percent were still 7-8, but the number of 7-9 schools had fallen to 5 percent—an 85-percent drop.

Superintendent Scott Brown has been a fan of the middle-school idea for years and has led districts where a 6-8 structure is in place.

“It provides a transition between the isolated, self-contained life of an elementary school [and] high school,” he said. Plus, with three grades at one school, “You have a better chance of developing a certain amount of continuity. At a two-year school, they’re either coming or going.”

He acknowledges that education is a “trendy” business but says this concept is one that has proven itself.

But even as CUSD officials insist they would have made the move to 6-8 schools sooner if only they had had room, some of the districts that adopted the model early on are now switching back.

Districts in Baltimore, Cleveland, Dover (Del.) and Pittsburgh dropped the 6-8 configuration after realizing that test scores had dropped—especially in math and science—as academics were dumbed down amid accusations of poorly prepared teachers and vague curricula, according to an exhaustive report in 2000 by Education Week. In the late 1990s, districts in Cincinnati attributed widespread discipline problems to the city’s middle schools and moved back to K-8s. Similar moves were made in Hartford, Conn., and Harrisburg, Pa.—all, of course, cities much larger than Chico and arguably more prone to safety problems and unprepared teachers.

Most adults remember the junior high years as a time that, in schoolyard parlance, pretty much sucked. Hard.

Parents and students in the CUSD say that these days daily dramas over who’s going with whom are being replaced with who’s thinking of having sex with whom, or who’s smoking pot after school. And if a pre-teen’s self-esteem is going to get hammered, the pounding will likely peak in junior high.

This as they’re being thrown algebra and even encouraged to consider college plans.

Co-mingling sixth-graders with comparatively worldly seventh- and eighth-graders is an idea that worries some parents and teachers—especially if it’s done too quickly, with little research into the pros and cons of such a shift.

“There’s definitely a wrong way to do it and a right way to do it,” said Kathleen Makel, who has two children at Shasta Elementary and one at Bidwell Junior High. “The theory is a very attractive, persuasive theory. But is it overall going to be better for kids?”

Preston and Edwards, the Little Chico Creek teachers, don’t think so.

“We feel keeping them in the sixth grade here builds their self-confidence,” Edwards said. “They are the oldest ones on the campus. They’re looked up to. They are the role models.”

Each day, they split the kids, with Preston taking them for math and science—his strongest suits—and Edwards teaching them language arts and history. Their goal is to prepare them for the tougher work of junior high while at the same time keeping an eye on the students’ emotional needs.

“They need to be taught how to become responsible, how to become planners,” Preston said. “A child who comes out of a sixth-grade program at an elementary school is so much more confident and aware of who they are as a leader.

“The majority of people who are reading and doing math are doing it at the level we’re doing now. So, it’s such an important foundation,” he said.

Preston is one of several sixth-grade teachers in the CUSD who say they’d try to get reassigned to a different grade rather than teach in a middle-school setting.

Edwards said, “It’s not change we fear. It’s looking at individual needs of students—what’s good for kids, what’s best for kids.

“They want to balance the budget on the backs of sixth-graders, is what it seems like.”

Shuffling sixth-graders would solve a space problem; having 900 fewer students in the elementary schools—where enrollment has dropped by more than 600 students since 1998-99—would allow more of them to be closed, saving $430,000 per campus.

“It’s a little odd that it adds up,” said one skeptical parent, Bonnie Chapman, who has two children at Shasta Elementary. Mary Price, who also has two kids there, agrees: “It’s an easy fix.”

Also, Chapman and Price point out, if the district decides to close three campuses, enrollment at the remaining ones would rival the numbers at urban schools. “People move here because it’s a small community,” Chapman said.

Rees said the timing is coincidental. When ninth-graders were moved from junior highs to high school campuses in 1992 amid great controversy, he said, “people were saying it’s all about money and not about kids.”

“The wrong reason to do this is because it makes financial sense,” he said.

As much as sixth-grade teachers are balking at the middle-school idea, junior high teachers seem to be embracing it. “This staff is excited about having sixth-graders on their site,” said Stephen Piluso, the new principal at Marsh Junior High School.

Piluso has suddenly found himself the resident expert on middle schools, even though he shies away from that label. In education for three decades, he inherited a 6-8 middle school when he took over the helm at nearby Durham Intermediate School.

FITTING IN Rob Williams, pictured with Jnana Pierce’s sixth-grade class, is principal of Bidwell Junior High School and says the two classrooms of sixth-graders there are doing great under a modified middle-school model.

Photo By Tom Angel

Piluso believes sixth-graders are underestimated developmentally and emotionally. “They’re more like seventh- and eighth-grade kids,” he said. “But there’s a world of difference between the seventh-grader and the ninth-grader.” Today, he said, adolescents are facing decisions that students in the past weren’t confronted with until they were two or three years older.

Middle school, Piluso said, “is like our last-ditch effort to catch them and make them feel important, and to catch them intellectually.”

At Marsh, teachers collaborate in teams as groups of 90 students move from class to class together. The teachers, Piluso said, are “nurturing, yet demanding.”

Rob Williams, who has a background in elementary education but is now principal at Bidwell Junior High, said his campus has already adopted many of the principles espoused in Caught in the Middle. “These three junior highs are very well poised to adapt to a middle-school model. The staff is ready for that. My teachers are on board.”

In fact, some sixth-graders are already in attendance at Bidwell. This is because currently parents can choose to have their sixth-graders on the junior high campuses (about 15 percent of them do so), where they’re taught in self-contained classrooms and don’t associate much with the older kids, teachers and students said.

“They aren’t in the locker rooms with them,” Williams said, or even in the same classrooms at Bidwell. “I see them as staying in their separate areas.”

The sixth-grade teachers at Bidwell work in teams, assigning work that crosses over from subject to subject. In seventh grade, there are three “core” teams, history, science and language arts, and in eighth it’s two cores. After meeting in homeroom, kids move with same group of kids—randomly selected by computer, not ability—to classes with different teachers.

Also, Williams said, counselors, administrators and teachers meet once a week, comparing notes on which kids need extra care socially, emotionally or otherwise. “We don’t focus exclusively on academic skills,” he said.

Suzanne Mancini believes that while some sixth-graders may be able to handle the junior high environment, her younger daughter, currently in fifth grade at Emma Wilson Elementary, isn’t one of them.

“I just feel that at this age they’re so influenced that what they see at junior high is just overkill,” she said. From behavior and values to the inexplicable allure of thong underwear, it’s just too much. After spending six or seven years in an elementary school, Mancini said, “It’s a real, nice comfort zone. It’s still kind of childlike. They really need one more year at elementary to learn about teamwork and behavior and right and wrong and that what the big kids do isn’t always good.”

Mancini’s older child, Brittney, is in eighth grade at Bidwell and probably would have done OK there in sixth, mother and daughter agree.

“I think that some of them aren’t mentally ready for everything that goes on there,” said Brittney, 12, a student government leader who last week helped orientate new sixth-graders to campus. “Some of their actions just seemed younger and not as advanced.”

If it comes down to it, Suzanne Mancini said, “I’ll put my child in private school or home-school.”

Emma Wilson parent Lori Twisselman doesn’t know if she’d go that far, but she’s definitely uncomfortable with the idea of her fifth-grader being thrust into a school with seventh- and eighth-graders next year.

“Today, it’s a much better scenario to go K-6,” she said. “I think, socially, they’re not there yet. It’s definitely a different world. They’re exposed to drugs, cigarettes, language. … The longer you can wait, the better.”

Laurie DeBock, who teaches sixth grade at Emma Wilson and is a parent of teenagers, says when it comes to some of the kids in her class, “developmentally, they’d be lost at the junior highs.”

“In one year, they mature a lot,” she said. “[Moving them early] plunges them into issues they really aren’t ready for. They still have ‘cooties’ right now.

“I really believe that the sixth-grade program at the junior highs should be voluntary,” DeBock said.

Rees, the trustee, hesitates at the idea of offering several models to choose from: K-8, 6-8 and 7-8. “We could do that, but what’s the cost of that? If we have something we think is the best, why not offer that to everyone?”

But he agrees that trying to implement new grade configurations by fall 2005 is “too ambitious,” especially since the district would want to integrate the principles of Caught in the Middle and its 2001 follow-up document, Taking Center Stage.

Piluso, of Marsh, said, “It’s probably a two- or three-year process. Phase it in. You have to have a couple of years of planning.”

That’s how the CUSD did it back in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, when ninth-graders were moved from the junior highs to high schools.

In late 1989, a 40-page Grade Configuration Study Team Report was prepared by a 29-member committee of teachers, parents and administrators who met for nearly a year and recommended that the district change to K-5, 6-8 and 9-12 configurations. Furthermore, they said, the “middle-school concept” should be incorporated into grades 6-8.

Three committee members who signed a “minority opinion” argued that the ninth graders would be lost in the peer-pressure-filled high school environment and, at the same time, the younger kids would lose their mentors. But the CUSD followed the educational trend and the desire to relieve overcrowding at the two junior highs and moved the ninth-graders.

With the third junior high that was to be funded by a 1988 bond on hold as the state building fund went broke, there was no room for the sixth-graders at Chico and Bidwell junior highs, so that part of the idea was shelved.

But 1989 was a long time ago, concerned parents point out, and the CUSD shouldn’t rely solely on that committee’s research.

Jan Summerville was on the task force that last year studied grade configurations as part of the CUSD’s Strategic Plan. She said that even though her committee recommended a shift to 6-8 be made slowly, with parent buy-in if at all, the final report didn’t seem to reflect the smaller group’s concerns.

“I’m just not 100 percent convinced that this needs to be done,” she said. “I’d hate to see a whole sixth-grade generation be an experiment.”

Summerville has a sixth-grader at Emma Wilson and an eighth-grader at Bidwell and said her older daughter “comes home with wild stories every day.”

If she’d wanted her sixth-grader at a junior high, she would have taken the option when it was offered. “We had that choice. We specifically did not do that,” she said.

The CUSD’s board-appointed Campus Consolidation Committee, which will use a $35,000 demographics study to consider changing district boundaries and closing schools, met for the first time on Aug. 25. At first, trustees said they’d make the decision about the sixth-graders up front rather than saddle the committee with such a politically volatile task.

But Rees said that when he and board President Steve O’Bryan got together to draw up the “charge” to the committee, they decided they wanted to committee to consider grade configurations after all.

“We were waffling at one of those meetings back and forth,” Rees said. “It’s hard to separate these issues out.” Ultimately, even if the committee comes out with a recommendation, it will be up to the board to decide if it wants to go to 6-8 middle schools.

Joan McCormick, who teaches sixth grade at Emma Wilson Elementary, fears the district has already made up its mind—and she’s not even sure she’s against the 6-8 idea.

“It depends on philosophy; it depends what the program looks like,” she said. “But I’ve never been asked what I think.

“The bottom line is, if the district is looking at what’s best for kids and they’re going to put the time and energy into developing a middle-school program, and not just move the grade, I think there’s some merit there. But if it’s motivated by finances … then we’re not looking at what’s best for students.

“Change is difficult for everyone. Change is easier if it’s done in an intelligent, thought-out way. I would hope the district provides options,” McCormick said. “Not everyone learns the same.”

Williams, the Bidwell principal, would welcome the sixth-graders but isn’t quite sure how the additional students would fit on his campus. “Space is a difficult thing that would have to be ironed out.”

Brown agrees with CUTA leader Young that if the sixth-graders were to be moved, the matter would have to be bargained with the union.

“This is a real nebulous area,” said Young, explaining that while most sixth-grade teachers are credentialed to teach multiple subjects, their junior high counterparts are, like high school teachers, credentialed for a single subject. Seniority and transfer rights would also play a role. “It’s not going to be clean and easy.

“I’m as interested an observer as everyone else is," he said. "Whatever happens, the kids are going to come, and we’ll do our best to teach them."